Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Lay of the Political Landscape: An Analysis of the 2020 North Carolina State Senate Races

This is the second in a series regarding the 'state of the field' when it comes to the North Carolina General Assembly, the U.S. House districts, the gubernatorial contest, U.S. Senate race, and the presidential contest in North Carolina. Between now and early September, each week will see a new post analyzing the data and dynamics and giving some assessment (but not a forecast) of what to look for in November. This week we posted an analysis of the state's 7 million registered voters, and continue this week with the upper chamber of the General Assembly, the North Carolina state senate. In the coming weeks, we'll have the companion legislative analysis for the state house, along with the congressional, gubernatorial, U.S. Senate, and presidential contests in the Old North State. 

By Chris Cooper and Michael Bitzer

It is relatively easy to keep up with national and state-level races. Polling results, campaign finance data, and career details of the candidates are available to anyone with access to a library card, newspaper subscription, or keyboard. State legislative races, however, can be more difficult to follow. Their sheer number makes them hard to keep track of (170 in North Carolina), and the diffuse nature of state politics means that there’s not “one source” to find most of this information across all states. 

This is a problem not just for politicos, but for anyone who wants to follow what we would argue is the most important policy-making body for issues that affect people’s lives. Concerned about voting rights/voter security, abortion rights/right to life, gun rights/gun regulation, the quality of the roads you drive on, or economic development issues? The fault lines on those issues lies squarely in the purview of the state legislature. 

In order to attempt to bridge the gap between importance and knowledge, this entry provides a brief(ish) update and analysis on the 50 races for North Carolina Senate in 2020. One of us (the one with the trademark bow-tie) posted a similar analysis in February. This one builds off of that base with some new data and some new analysis. 

Incumbent Party Control of NC's State Senate Districts
A Quick NC Senate Primer

As much as it pains us to admit, some readers (even readers of this blog) have a thing or two to ponder other than the intricacies of the North Carolina State Senate. So—a few quick reminders are in order before getting to the heart of the analysis (if you speak in #ncpol shorthand, you can safely ignore this section).

Like every state but one (hello Nebraska), North Carolina has a bicameral state legislature with a lower and upper house.  Our lower house consists of 120 seats, while the Senate has 50 seats, which are spread across the state with equal population in each district. To control the NC senate, therefore, a party needs to garner 26 seats. Since 1996, North Carolina’s governor has had the power of the veto, but that veto can be overridden with a 3/5 vote of both chambers. As a result, just as 26 seats is a key line in the sand denoting the difference between holding majority control and lingering in the minority, 30 (3/5 of the chamber, known as a supermajority) provides a similarly important goal for each party. Currently, the Republicans enjoy a majority of the seats, but not a supermajority in both chambers (29 to 21 in the Senate, 65 to 55 in the House). Finally, while some districts have remained constant over the last few years, others have recently been redrawn. In what follows, we're referring to the “new districts.”  

We refer to some fundraising numbers in what follows. State-level fundraising data are notoriously difficult to work with, but the NC State Board of Elections (NCSBOE) provides data on direct candidate receipts and expenditures by quarter. In what follows, we generally use “total receipts” (all receipts that a candidate has received added up into one sum, regardless of the type of receipt or when they were received) and second quarter receipts (receipts received between April 1, 2020 and June 30, 2020). The second quarter report was due to the State Board of Elections on July 15 and the vast majority of those reports have been uploaded to the NCSBOE web site. Third quarter receipts will run through September 30, and will be due October 14. That will be the last campaign finance update until after the election (fourth quarter reports run through December 31 and are due January 15, 2021).


Democracy works best when citizens have a choice between at least two candidates. And, after some years of questionable success in candidate recruiting (only about half of all General Assembly districts in 2016 featured two major party competition), the Democratic and Republican Parties in North Carolina have done a good job recruiting candidates and offering North Carolina voters choice in 2020. In fact, we have a Democrat and a Republican candidate in every state senate race except one. And the one exception to that rule (Senate District 41) lacks a Republican, but a member of the Constitution Party is challenging the seat, providing some measure of competition in all 50 seats.


News and Observer reporters Will Doran and Lucille Sherman have done yeoman’s work getting the campaign finance data together for both the House and the Senate—their article does a good job summarizing the state of those data (if you get the pop-up saying that you’ve already viewed your maximum number of stories this month, now’s a good time to subscribe…just sayin…). As they describe, second quarter Republican receipts trailed Democratic receipts by a substantial margin. For the races for which we can identify data, the average Senate Democratic candidate has outraised the average Senate Republican candidate by ~$4,300 (~$51,834 v. ~$47,479). Considering total receipts instead of just second quarter receipts provides a slightly different story, with Republican candidates who have reported results averaging slightly more in total receipts than their Democratic counterparts (an average of $128,427 in total receipts for Republican Senate candidates for whom we can find data v. an average of ~$121,144 for Democratic candidates for whom data are available).


While finding a congressional or U.S. Senate handicapping site is easier than locating a person banging a drum in Pritchard Park in Asheville, it’s more difficult to find folks willing to handicap, forecast, or analyze state legislative elections. There are, of course, exceptions. Lou Jacobson handicaps state legislative chambers, Chaz Nuttycomb forecasts individual races and chambers and Political Scientist Carl Klarner produces sophisticated forecasts of both individual races and chambers. Within our own state, The Civitas Institute, a conservative think tank, produces assessments of how districts may lean, but they are careful to note that these are not meant to “forecast” but rather to give a sense of how a district may lean, absent the candidates and the races. The North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation produces helpful estimates of district lean as well.

We are a bit reluctant to get into the forecasting game. For one, we are not going to offer a sophisticated model of the NC Senate races here. While useful in many circumstances, we believe that forecasts, when taking as gospel, can be unnecessarily constricting. What we offer here, therefore, is best thought of an assessment of the field and the possibilities, rather than a forecast in the strictest sense.

We assign races to some general categories, but purposefully avoid words like “solid” or “guaranteed.” We also avoid placing percentages on specific races. We are hoping folks will read this as a user’s guide to 50 elections that are often difficult to keep track of because their sheer number makes them hard to follow. We both create similar cheat-sheets for our own use to help guide and inform us throughout the election season; this is just a chance to let some other folks look over our shoulders and see our notes.

We examined district-centered and candidate-centered factors for each election. For the district centered factors, we considered past voting history and partisan voter registration. Rather than reinvent the wheel, for the past voting record, we rely on the Civitas Partisan Index (CPI), which measures the average lean of a district based on the way the district voted in 14 recent elections as well as the percent of the district that supported Donald Trump in the 2016 election (although we discuss both, they are almost perfectly correlated; r=.99, meaning that we could have just as easily included one as the other and would have had almost identical results). For the partisan identification of the district, we rely on an analysis of the North Carolina Registered Voter file from late July, 2020.

When it comes to consistent measures of candidates centered factors, we rely on indications of whether the incumbent is running for office (following research showing that, all else being equal, incumbents are favored in state legislative elections), and whether there are any large disparities or patterns evident in the fundraising numbers.

After putting all of those measures together (click here if you want to play with the data), we place races in one of five categories: “likely Democrat,” “Democratic leaners” “Toss-up,” “Republican leaners” or “likely Republican.” Keep in mind, there aren’t hard divisions between these categories and things can (and will) change as we near election day. Nonetheless, we think these are fair delineations of the state of the field in late July, 2020.

In what follows, we discuss the “likely” races in general terms, but examine those in the “competitive, but lean” and “toss” up categories in more detail. So, with that out of the way, let’s get to it.

NC Senate District-Level Outlook
Likely Democrat (16)
Democratic Leaners
Republican Leaners
Likely Republican



















16 of these Districts are “Likely Democrat”

16 Districts appear to likely be in Democratic hands/are unlikely to be competitive. Past voting in these districts is rated as “Safe” or “Likely D,” according to Civitas. Donald Trump also garnered an average of only 34% of the vote in these districts, further reinforcing the idea that that these are the bluest districts in the state. All of these districts are currently held by Democrats; Democrats are outraising Republicans in every one of these districts and there are more registered Democratic than Republican or Unaffiliated voters in every one of these districts.

In case you weren’t already convince that Democrats are favored in these districts, incumbents are running in 14 of the 16 districts (the exception are in SD 49 where former Asheville City Councilor Julie Mayfield is running for Terry Van Duyn’s old seat, SD 39 (where appointed Senator Rob Bryan has chosen not to run again), and SD 3 (where incumbent Erica Smith’s chose not to run for her seat and instead ran for U.S. Senate). Anything could happen (after all, we do currently have a Democratic United States Senator from Alabama and a President of the United States who had a reality show), but it would take something out-of-the ordinary for the Republican candidates to prevail in any of these 16 districts.

20 of these districts are “Likely Republican”

20 districts appear to be safely in Republican hands/are unlikely to be competitive. Past voting in these districts is raced as “safe” or “likely” R, according to Civitas, and Donald Trump garnered an average of 66% of the votes in these districts. Further, all of these seats are currently held by Republicans, and Republican registration exceeds Democratic and Unaffiliated registration in all of these districts. Incumbents are running in 15 of the 20 seats (with the exceptions of districts 29, 42, 6, 50, and 26). Republicans have outraised Democrats in 17 of these 20 districts (SD 46 & SD 2 have very slight D fundraising advantages. SD-26 is an outlier because the Republican candidate was only recently named after incumbent Jerry Tillman announced his retirement).  

4 of these districts are “Democratic Leaners”

SD-18 pits Democrat Sarah Crawford against Republican Larry Norman in a race for John Alexander's (R) old seat. Although the seat is currently held by a Republican, the district lines were recently redrawn and the new lines are more favorable to the Democratic party. Crawford has raised about 31x more than Norman, including a much bigger second quarter. The CPI is listed as D+2, Donald Trump garnered less than half (48%) of the vote in the district, and the Democratic party holds a voter registration advantage (37%) over both Republican (29%) and Unaffiliated (33%) registrants.

SD-37 features prominent Democratic incumbent Jeff Jackson against Republican Sonja Nichols in a district that was recently redrawn and is now listed as a D+2 district; Donald Trump won 42% of the vote in this district. Democratic registration exceeds Republican registration, by a tight margin (32% to 31%) with Unaffiliated holding the registration advantage with 37%. Despite impressive fundraising by the Republican candidate, Jackson shows more than $500,000 in receipts and over $230,000 in the second quarter, giving him the highest total receipts of any Democrat in the NC Senate and the second highest receipts of any Democrat in the second quarter.

SD-19 Incumbent Democrat Kirk deViere is running against Republican Wesley Meredith in this Cumberland County District. The CPI lists this as a D+3 district, Trump garnered 48% of the vote and the party registration data favor the Democratic Party (40% D, 27% R, 33% U). Senator deViere has also a fundraising advantage, although both candidates have raised considerable sums—both overall and in the second quarter.

SD-5 features Democratic Incumbent Don Davis against Republican Karen Kozel. Kozel was a former member of the state House of Representatives and has name recognition (an important factor, particularly in state legislative races) in this Pitt and Greene County district. The CPI for this district is D+4, Trump garnered 46% of the vote and the Democrats hold a significant party registration advantage (44% D, 25% R, 31% U). Davis has not raised significant sums ($33,000 total receipts) and Kozel’s campaign finance data were not available on the NCSBOE web site 

4 of These Districts are “Republicans Leaners”

SD-7’s incumbent is Republican Jim Perry, although this is Perry’s first election—he was appointed on January 31, 2019 to fill the remainder of Louis Pate’s term.  Democrat Donna Lake is challenging Perry and outraised him in the second quarter ($122K to $71K), but is lagging far behind the incumbent in total receipts ($170K to $770K). Civitas’ Partisan Index places the district in a “Lean Republican” (R+2) category and President Trump garnered 53% of the vote, but party registration data favor the Democratic party (43% D, 31% R, 25% U). 

SD-11, located in Nash and Johnston County is currently represented by Republican Rick Horner, who is not seeking re-election. Republican Lisa Stone Barnes is running against Democrat Allen Wellons in this competitive district that Donald Trump won with 54% of the vote in 2016. The district is rated R+2 by the CPI.  Democrats hold a partisan advantage in voter registration (39%D, 32% R, 29% U) and while both candidates have receipts into the 6 figures, Wellons has raised ~50% more than Barnes. 

SD-24 is located in Guilford and Alamance counties and is currently represented by Rick Gunn. Gunn recently announced that he would not be running again and Republican Amy Galey and Democrat JD Wooten are competing for the seat. Total receipts are relatively close between the two, although Galey has outraised Wooten by about 8%. The CPI suggests that this is an R+4 district, and Donald Trump won the district with 55% of the vote, but there is a slight Democratic advantage in voter registration (36% D, 33% R, 31% U).

SD-31, located in Davie and Forsyth counties features incumbent Republican Joyce Krawiec against Democratic challenger Terri LeGrand (one of only two NC Senate seats where both major party candidates are women). While Krawiec has been no slouch in the fundraising department (~$85,000 in receipts), LeGrand has raised an astounding $465,000. The CPI for this district indicates a slight (R+4) voting pattern as does Donald Trump’s vote total (54% in 2016). The the voter registration data support the idea that this district leans towards the Republican party (34% D, 35% Republican, 31% Unaffiliated).

6 of These Districts are “Toss-Up”

SD-1 is located in Northeastern North Carolina with incumbent Republican Bob Steinburg running against Democratic challenger Tess Judge. Both have receipts exceeding $130,000, although Judge has a slight advantage in overall receipts. The CPI suggests that the district voting patterns lean slightly towards the Republicans (R+2), and Donald Trump won the district with 55% of the vote in 2016. Voter registration data, however, paint a slightly different picture, with significant Unaffiliated registrants (38% D, 27% R, 34% U).

SD-9, located in New Hanover County, features one of the most interesting match-ups in this election cycle: Democratic Incumbent Harper Peterson against Republican challenger Michael Lee. If this one seems like a bit of deja-vu, it’s because Peterson and Lee faced each other in 2018, although in that election Lee was the incumbent and Peterson was the challenger. Although Lee has a fundraising advantage, both candidates have raised in excess of $300,000 through the second quarter. Further solidifying its reputation as perhaps the key toss-up race in the North Carolina Senate, the CPI lists it as D+0 and Donald Trump won 50% of the SD-9 vote in 2016.

SD-13 is located in Columbus and Robeson Counties and could offer a tight race between Republican incumbent Danny Earl Britt, Jr. and Democratic challenger Barbara Yates-Lockamy. The CPI for the district suggests that it now leans slightly towards the Democratic Party (D+2), Donald Trump won 55% of the vote, and the voter registration leans clearly towards the Democratic party (54%D, 17% R, 28% U). The Republican incumbent shows receipts that far exceed that of his Democratic challenger (~$145,0000 v. ~$29,000), suggesting that the candidate-centered factors lean towards the Republicans, while the district-level factors are more mixed.

SD-17, located in Southern Wake County, features incumbent Democrat Sam Searcy attempting to hold onto his seat in a recently redrawn district against Republican Mark Cavaliero. Both candidates have raised large sums of money (each show receipts in excess of $350,000). The district CPI score is listed as D+1, and Donald Trump garnered 46% of the vote in 2016; the party registration data also reinforce the competitive nature of the district—neither party with a substantial advantage (28% D, 30% R, 42% U). 

SD-25, which includes Richmond, Anson, Scotland, and Moore counties features Republican incumbent Tom McInnis against Democrat Helen Probst Mills. District voting patterns lean towards the Republican Party (CPI=R+4, Trump won 56% of the vote in 2016), while the Democratic Party has a small registration advantage (37% D, 31% R, 33% U). Both candidates have enjoyed fundraising success, although the Democratic challenger has receipts that are ~41% greater than the Republican incumbent.  

SD-27, located in Guilford County, was recently redrawn. The 2020 race features incumbent Democrat Michael Garrett against Republican Sebastian King. Garrett has outraised King by about $100,000 (~$165,000 to ~$64,000). The district itself is extremely competitive, with a CPI that favors neither party (D+0), and a 2016 presidential vote share (48% Trump vote share) and voter registration that only slightly favors the Democratic Party (36% D, 32%R, 31%U).

Where Does this Leave Us?

Hopefully this analysis of the state of the field leaves us with a little better sense of the players and the factors that may drive who makes up the North Carolina State Senate come January 2021. In addition, this exercise provides us with an opportunity to see each party’s best path forward.

For the Republicans to maintain the majority, they first need to win the 20 “likely Republican” seats. They then need to win the four “Republican leaner” seats and at least two of the six toss-ups. To regain the supermajority, however, the Republicans would need to win their “likely” seats, their “leaner” seats and all of the “toss-up” seats. It’s not impossible, but it seems highly unlikely.

The Democratic path to a majority requires victory in all 16 “likely” Democratic races, along with all four “Democratic leaner” seats and five of six “toss-up” seats. The Democratic path to a supermajority is so unlikely that we won’t even pose the hypothetical here.

In all, the map and the candidates slightly favors a continued Republican majority. Despite this, Democrats are not without hope. Their second quarter fundraising numbers have exceeded Republican fundraising in the Tar Heel State and they likely have some national political winds at their back—winds that may carry farther than they used to, given the increasing “nationalization” of state legislative races. The question is whether the winds will carry them for enough. And, for that, we’ll have to wait until sometime in November to find the answer.


The gender breakdown in the NC Senate is, in a word, unequal. Currently there are only 11 women in the Senate (7 Democrats and 4 Republicans). As the chart below suggests, female representation in the North Carolina Senate has never neared parity with the percentages in the population (~51%). And while Democratic women outnumber Republican women now, Republicans held the gender advantage in the fairly recent past, at least in terms of raw numbers (as a percentage of their delegation, the Democrats still lead the way in gender representation, although their numbers were nothing to brag about).
Number of Women in the NC Senate by Party 1984-2020

In the 2020 election, 28 of the 99 two major party candidates for the North Carolina Senate are female, with 20 of these hailing from the Democratic Party and 8 from the Republican Party. There are two districts (31 and 45) with women running in both parties, but in all other cases, the female candidates are running against a male candidate. This is an improvement in female candidate emergence since 2016 when 23 female candidates competed for the North Carolina Senate. This means that we will have as few as 2 and as many as 26 women serving in the NC Senate in the next cycle.

By examining the nature of the districts in which female candidates are running, however, we see that, if the female candidates only win election in the districts where they are strong favorites (Likely Democrat and Likely Republican), we will have a minimum of 11 women in the NC Senate after the ballots are counted, an increase of one over the number of women in office today.  If women win in every race in which they are favored, and win every toss-up race where a woman is running, we would expect to see 18 women sworn into the NC Senate in 2021—far from parity, but still a significant increase.

Women Running for the NC Senate by Political Party and District Outlook

Democratic Women
Republican Women
Likely Democrat
Democratic Leaners
Republican Leaners*
Likely Republican*
*=categories where there is one race where both major party candidates are women.

What’s to Come

We’re planning to write a similar analysis of the state of the State House field sometime in mid-August. And, if all goes well and the creek don’t rise, we’ll add one (mercifully shorter) analysis of the U.S. House races, followed by an assessment of the governor's contest, the battle for the U.S. Senate seat, and finally, the presidential contest, as part of ONSP's "Lay of the Political Landscape" series for the 2020 general election.

Dr. Chris Cooper is the Madison Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University, and serves as department head of political science and public affairs. He tweets at @chriscooperwcu

Dr. Michael Bitzer is the Leonard Chair of Political Science at Catawba College, and tweets at @BowTiePolitics